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It’s been a few years since I read Lissa Evans’ excellent novel “Crooked Heart”, but I remember loving her vivid characters and witty writing style. So when I heard that her new novel is a prequel to this earlier book I become intensely curious. “Crooked Heart” opened with a poignant description of Mattie, an aging intellectual who was very active in the Suffragette movement, before describing the journey her ward Noel takes out of London to escape the The Blitz in 1940. “Old Baggage” tells Mattie’s story prior to when the boy Noel came to live with her and depicts Britain at an interesting stage of its political history.

It’s 1928 and many people - including some of the women involved in the Suffragette movement - feel that their overall aims have been achieved because of the new Equal Franchise Act which granted equal voting rights to women and men at the age of 21. However, Mattie is still frustrated by other inequalities between the sexes which persist and there’s also worrying fascist groups gaining in popularity – one of which is led by a former Suffragette. Mattie is the most endearing sort of stickler (who I admire but would be terrified to meet in real life) as she persists in delivering lectures to mostly bored crowds and has a new scheme to empower lackadaisical local girls by marching them through the heath like young activists/explorers. While this all makes it sound like a novel top heavy on history and politics it really doesn’t read that way. Rather, it’s a warm-hearted, comic and ultimately poignant portrayal of a group of women trying to balance their personal desires/values against the limitations of society at that time.

Although the story is a prequel, it felt like no prior knowledge of Mattie was necessary to enjoy this story of her and her household known as “The Mousehole” in Hampstead. It earned this nickname because it was a refuge for suffragettes to recover in when they were released from prison after hunger strikes in what was known as the Cat and Mouse Act. But now Mattie’s only stalwart companion in the house is Florrie Lee who is nicknamed “The Flea.” They are just friends but Florrie possesses latent romantic feelings towards Mattie. Her unexpressed sexuality is subtly described with a lot of feeling and care: “she loved Mattie. Living with her in simple friendship might be akin to dancing the Charleston when what you really ached for was a slow waltz – but the music still played; it was, in its way, still a dance.” It’s interesting how even though Mattie is such a progressive there were social issues even she wasn’t prepared to fight for in this era of history or, perhaps, she wasn’t even aware of them.  

What’s so clever about this novel is the way Evans gives such a compelling and many-sided look at politics from this period, but they are threaded so expertly into the plot they don’t obstruct the pleasure of the story. I found myself heartily engaged in scenes such as Mattie chasing a thief through a fairground or delighting in some deliciously cutting turns of phrase such as when Mattie describes a girl as being “zestless as a marzipan lemon”. Only after reading certain scenes did I think back and reflect on the way complicated social issues were built into the framework of these characters’ stories. It made me consider the difficult personal sacrifices individuals must make for a higher cause and how challenging it is to gain a historical perspective on a time period when you’re living through it. The story also subtly shows how political ideas influence people and reverberate over the greater span of time.

Many other writers would show the grit and agony the Suffragettes went through when starving themselves to protest against flagrant inequalities and the men in power who refused to do anything to change them. Instead, Evans refers to this and shows its continuing impact in Mattie’s dogged attitude lecturing and teaching anyone she encounters. I think this displays an admirable restraint in a writer because the impact of these activists’ self-sacrifice is no less intensely felt and we get a more complex picture of how seismic social changes have a multi-layered effect over time. While it’s important not to blinker ourselves against the horrors of history there can be an anaesthetizing effect when fiction gives detailed descriptions of harrowing situations. So it’s a difficult thing to make readers feel the heat of that anger while not making them want to close themselves off to the reality of it, but this is something Evans does very well.

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Evans also delivers that wonderful pleasure readers can get from reading about characters in situations where social rules are flagrantly disregarded. There’s a memorable scene in a jail where Mattie (as a victim of a crime) is expected to behave in a certain way, but her principles and resentment over the way police abused Suffragettes hilariously prevent her from complying and make her follow her own independent corrective actions. Her persistence and obstinacy to the cause exhausts nearly everyone around her, but she’s not immune to change. The story shows how her attitudes incrementally transform as she must temper her personality to allow for other people’s feelings.

While the primary journey of this novel was such a delight to read, I did feel that the story didn’t deliver an entirely satisfying conclusion for several strands within it. There are some periphery characters who we’re given touching private moments with, but their individual dilemmas feel slightly left behind in the greater sweep of Mattie’s story. She’s undeniably the centre of the novel and she’s such a mesmerising figure she deserves to be the focus. But when she reaches a certain crisis point and fall from grace it feels like everyone else is somewhat short-changed in the process of her redemption. However, the pleasures of this novel are manifold and the skill demonstrated in rendering history in such a lively, complex way is so admirable. It also felt especially moving at the end of “Old Baggage” reading about the genesis of a substitute parent-child relationship which changes so dramatically at the beginning of “Crooked Heart”. Mostly I admire Lissa Evans’ creative and imaginative style of writing about ornery characters in a way that makes me love them.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLissa Evans
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Sometimes it seems like so such WWII fiction has been published that even stories set during the London Blitz all start to feel too familiar. Then a story comes along like Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans and I see things from an entirely new perspective. True, this is another tale about a London boy sent to live in the safety of the countryside, but the characters are unlike any others I’ve read about. Noel is a quiet and precocious child who is living with his feisty former-Suffragette godmother Mattie in London until she begins suffering severely from the onset of dementia. With only the most tangential relations left to care for him, he sets out for a rural town where he is paraded through the streets with other children by a billeting officer until he’s spotted by a woman named Vee. She takes him into her home, not for the good of the cause, but for the ten and sixpence a week she’ll get for housing him. Vee has many responsibilities caring for her partially-invalid mother, who spends her days writing amusingly earnest letters to Churchill and son in his young adulthood, who escaped the draft due to a heart condition. At first she is perplexed by Noel’s oddities, remarking “he was like one of those fancy knots, all loops, no ends.” But gradually she comes to respect his intelligence and emotionally-guarded manner. Vee and Noel make a curious pair who form an unscrupulous alliance that leads them on an emotional journey.

The author also has a refreshing way of conjuring the time period through evocative sensory experiences. I particularly appreciate how Evans creates particularly strong feelings for the besieged city through the sense of taste. With descriptions of unseasoned boiled potatoes being consumed in an air raid shelter or a handful of London water which tastes of pennies or the red grit of brick dust which crusts a character’s tongue, the reader is drawn into the civilian experience of war-time. So when a line as short and abrupt as “This fog had been a house” comes, it’s made to feel all the more tragic because the imagined sensations of those flavours are still on your tongue. It makes the devastation feel immediately real. My only criticism of the writing style is that in certain scenes set in public spaces the arrangement of characters becomes somewhat disorientating so it’s difficult to follow the action that’s happening. However, the novel overall moves in well arranged segments that build tension and draw you into the dramatic experiences of the protagonists.

What’s particularly successful is the different slant Evans takes on the attitudes of her characters in this time period. Whether its homes left unattended because of bomb scares, citizens too eager to donate money for good causes or young men desperate to avoid being taken into the armed forces, the war unintentionally opened up opportunities for people with morally-dubious sensibilities to take advantage and profit. What’s more is that there is a sense from the response by the police and authorities in the novel that they are so overwhelmed by the dramatic societal shift caused from the war that they don’t have the time or resources to deal with non-life-threatening incidents of crime. Far from alienating them from the reader, the sometimes selfish attitudes of the characters portrayed makes them more human and relatable. It’s very different from the purely virtuous or outrageously hateful WWII characters that you find in many war novels. The characters in Crooked Heart are endearingly flawed with emotionally-damaged pasts which impinge upon their judgement and actions.

The way in which the central characters come to rely and care for each other seems particularly relevant for this time period. Although neither Noel nor Vee’s families are affected by the current war they are left isolated like many people during this time when society was being shaken down by the strain of conflict and restrictions of rationing. Driven out of their normal circumscribed existence, chance encounters brought people together out of necessity. While Noel and Vee form a relationship at first out of need they soon discover a kinship which redefines the traditional meaning of family. Crooked Heart delves into the private lives of people living through the horrors of war showing you a refreshingly different perspective. At one point it’s remarked that “There were bombs outside, but inside was worse.” This novel confronts people who aren’t invested with the cause of the war so much as their own personal survival and overcoming private difficulties. It’s exciting reading how Evans incorporates elements of the Blitz to draw their priorities into focus.

This review of Crooked Heart also appeared on Shiny New Books

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLissa Evans